Multicultural Casting – A Comment

About a decade ago, I went to an audition for a show that needed, for one of the principal characters, a middle-aged Asian/Pacific Islander woman.  “At last,” I thought, “a role that I am the right type for!” I wasn’t the only one who thought so.  Everyone else I knew thought I’d be perfect for the part.

But, after I gave my audition, I received a curious response from the director.  He looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am inviting you to call-backs for the role.  But I want you to know that your ethnic background will give you no advantage whatsoever in this process.”

I found out later what that remark meant.  The director had already pre-cast the role with a blonde, who later dyed her hair black for the show.

But before the term “multi-cultural casting” can pop into your head, let me share one more story.  Just a couple of years after this incident, I auditioned for another play.  But, unlike the previously mentioned show, this script gave no ethnic or racial storyline for any of the characters.  It was simply a story about a group of co-workers in modern-day America.

But as soon as I walked into the room, the director looked at me and said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t picture you being in this play” and then tried to discourage me from auditioning.

I later attended the opening weekend of the production.  It had an all-white cast.

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking right now.  “This is theatre!  This  is not about race.”

And you might also say, “A director has every right to remain true to his/her artistic vision for a show. Just because a character in a play is written to be Asian (or Latino or black), the director doesn’t automatically have to go there.”

Of course, in a perfect world, all the above thoughts would be true.  But, as recent events at the LaJolla Playhouse tell us, we are far from achieving that perfect, color-blind world.

Still from Inspecting Carol, Dec., 2011

Zorah (Yvette Zaepfel) tries unsuccessfully to reassure Walter (Tim Takechi) that his costume will work in BLT’s production of Inspecting Carol, Dec., 2011. Photo by Mike Wilson for Burien Little Theatre.

These two incidents from my own theatrical experience illustrate a disconcerting assumption: that in America, Caucasian is still the “default setting” in most people’s minds.  The first story is an example of the assumption that, when a principal role in a classic and beloved play is cast, it is perfectly natural for a Caucasian to step into these roles whether or not they are of the proper ethnic heritage.  After all, isn’t that what “acting” (and hair dye) is all about?

But, unfortunately, the second story indicates that this same assumption is not extended to non-white actors.  If there are roles that are customarily played by Caucasians, it isn’t always seen as “natural” for a non-white to step into those roles (even if we were willing to dye our hair!).  As several directors have told us, they just didn’t want to “go in that direction” with their play.

Gee…..what “direction” would that be?

Persons of color have always been a part of the American fabric.  Our local communities, especially here in Western Washington, are made up of people of all races, ethnicities and religions.  But popular entertainment, including live theatre, is still overwhelmingly white.  As members of the “default race” in America, most Caucasians probably don’t understand how deeply it affects me, as an Asian American, to see only white faces on stage when I attend the theatre.  They may not understand, as well, the joy and personal connection I feel when I do occasionally see a face that looks like me.

My family has been in this country for five generations.  It’s about time that we be consistently included with the mainstream of America.  We are Americans, as much as our white brothers and sisters. We should not only be performing with “ethnic theatre groups,” our stories must be included in the seasons at mainstream theaters.

Even if these theaters won’t include an ethnic-specific story in their line-up, such as The Joy Luck Club, why aren’t we included in any story that simply tells the tale of people in America?

This is why I applaud the artists at the Burien Little Theatre.  Their commitment to recruit and cast actors of all ethnicities echoes my own theatrical mission.  Not only does this provide greater access to theatrical roles for actors of color, it also brings in a whole new audience to the theatre.  I’m not the only person who enjoys seeing persons of all races on the stage.  Others in our community have waited for this to happen, and will gladly patronize a theatre that showcases a multi-ethnic talent pool. To put it bluntly, diversity on stage can also be a good marketing move.

Any well-written play will touch people’s hearts, regardless of the color of the lead characters’ skin.  Two thumbs up to BLT, for showing us just how universal live theatre really is.

Editor’s note: This was sent to BLT in response to  a post about multicultural casting – HERE.  The author of this comment, Aya Hashiguchi Clark, is a very accomplished local actor that BLT has been lucky enough to cast in a few of BLT’s shows.  Ms. Clark is also one of the founders of  Dukesbay Productions in Tacoma, WA.

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1 Response to Multicultural Casting – A Comment

  1. craig says:

    Another issue, I think, is that chicken-and-egg problem – how do you get writers to write roles for non-white characters, and theatres to portray them, when there can be so much of a challenge finding actors for the role? This was something Eric mentioned in his article on this subject. This situation can discourage theatres, writers, and actors alike, because it has its own inertia. At least, that’s true as long as people want to stay with the “safe” interpretations of a play.

    One of the good things about BLT’s philosophy is that it likes to try to cast against type. That opens up the possibility for more roles for actors who aren’t white men, and it can also make a production more interesting. That, in turn, ought to make people who aren’t the “expected” type more likely to try out for roles, and should grow the base of such actors to the point where writing or trying to cast roles specifically for them is no longer a risk.

    Like seeing Walter in an 18th Century european wig in Inspecting Carol, seeing something you don’t expect can make it far more memorable. And I think our audience knows that just because you don’t expect something doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

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